Misadventures in the Skin Trade

By Dave Wiggins, Conservation Co-Chair

Habitat destruction caused by agricultural devel- opment and mineral extraction? Entire ecosys- tems altered, perhaps permanently, by advanc- ing climate changes brought on by greenhouse gas emissions? These are of course very real threats to the existence of a great many of the world’s endangered species. Yet most of us don’t think of the tremendous threat to many of the very same species posed by the brisk illegal international trade in wholly unnecessary products made from their bodies.

On July 24, at the regional group’s quarterly meeting at the Peninsula Center Library, Sier- ra Club members and guests saw a compelling presentation by an enforcement officer from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, graphically describ- ing the environmental harm caused by this trade, and showing just a few examples of the many items confiscated by the Service every day at the nation’s major airports, ocean ports and bor- der crossings:

Jackets, furs and sweaters are made from po- lar bears, rare antelopes, sea otters, alligators, tigers, jaguars and other big cats; jewelry, hand- bags, figurines and other curios are carved from the skins and shells of endangered sea turtles and the ivory of elephants, whales, walruses and seals. Traditional medicines are refined from various body parts and fluids of Asiatic black bears, rhinos, leopards, musk deer and pangolins. Live birds, monkeys, snakes, tortoises, lizards, coral, orchids and cacti are also regularly intercepted.

But for every animal, plant or product caught, doubtless many others make it through. Smug- glers are sometimes prosecuted, but their jail sen- tences are usually light and insufficient to deter future smuggling.

So what can we do about this, if anything? The laws are dizzyingly complex, so when traveling

abroad, simply don’t buy any live animals or plants, or anything made from non-do- mesticated animals. Especially avoid sea turtle products, ivory, big cat furs, feathers, and medicines made from an- imals.

Don’t buy these products at home either, even if you believe the merchant is legitimate. We can surely get by on other stuff.

And SPREAD THE WORD! For more information, check out the website for the Fish & Wildlife Service at www.fws.gov.

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